We asked Ridley Scott to pick one favorite shot from each of his movies, as well as one from any other film. The director of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Napoleon, and many, many others breaks down each shot for us and explains what makes each so special to him.
“I like the shots prowling around the corridors. I was the operator, so we designed the set just wide enough to get a dolly down or it was all handheld. We built the lights into the set, so the side lights would be attached to a board on the side of the set where you can actually dim them, lower them, and bring in light.
So, in a funny kind of way, that was a fairly new way of doing it. But we built the lights into the set and because I knew everything was going to be more or less handheld, that was the shot. So moving along there through then seeing the corridor, seeing the empty ship was kind of beautiful. It’s a haunted house. Alien, to me, was kind of really a B-movie, done in an A-plus way.”
Blade Runner (1982)
“The opening shot. That’s the stunner and that is almost entirely Doug Trumbull and his team. I’d drawn the impossible, a dilapidated city and a ruined future. That’s what we’re doing, because of where we’d been heading for a while now. I think we’re trying to do a U-turn, I hope we’re not too late.
And so from that, the set itself was no bigger than this room. All those effects were done 65 mm on tracks. There are 17 passes on one negative. So, you’re tracking one, come back, track it again, and you’re exposing different parts of your negative. It’s a remarkable piece because it’s not digital, there’s no digital work there at all. It’s 17 passes on a negative.”
“The hand on wheat. The hand was on the last day print of photography in Tuscany, and I’d finished the movie and I’d gone to Tuscany to do heaven. I couldn’t possibly have dry ice with people walking in 48 frames a second, right? Can’t do that.
But what we found was a wheat field. I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting” Not vines, wheat. And in the wheat is this man wading through this high corn to meet his wife and child down the slope, way down the hill. And so, we followed him. As he was standing there, he was smoking in the corn. I said, “Stop smoking. It’s 40 degrees. Are you kidding me?!” As he walked out, he did this with his hand (gestures hand brushing the top of the wheat). I said, “Stop.”
So you’ve always got to keep your eyes open for a shot. We got the steady cam and followed the hand. That became the opening shot of the movie. So, in a funny kind of way, it becomes a symbol, a metaphor for immortality, going to heaven.”
Black Hawk Down (2001)
“The four helicopters coming in over the city and landing in the high street. That’s all one shot. That’s real and it’s the first time I used 11 cameras. That’s with a guy called Slavimir Izak, and he said, “I hate the sunshine and I only work with one camera.” He ended up working in Morocco with 11 cameras. I think he enjoyed it.
I work with great cameramen. You need them. I’m very visual and I can operate as a good operator. That helps me frame things in multi-camera situations. I know what I want, but you still need the cameraman to actually be able to cope with who has what stop and how it’s going to be.”
Was it hard to make a helicopter war action film and not have Apocalypse Now in the back of your mind?
“No, I never thought about that, but that was a great shot. The music was fantastic, but the shot was good too.”
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
“Funny thing, I liked the scene coming out of his house, looking across the buildings to him going through to break the ice to wash. I’d just thought that looked so real and so medieval. I love that, yeah. The Forge, we built the village and forge, but the castle in the background was real. We went in there for the dining room scene in the long version. We just went in there, lit the fire, and did the scene. I’ve got a good eye. I’m born with a good eye.”
The Martian (2015)
“The 360 track around our man sitting there, contemplating his death. He’s sitting in a spacesuit and we just do a full walk around him showing the impossibility of where he is. He ain’t going to get out.”
As a rule, do you prefer working with physical sets and natural conditions rather than CGI?
“No, I use CGI as a tool. It’s a tool. I mean, of course, sometimes doing the big battle scenes, if I’ve got 400 extras in a row like this, I’m shooting along them. It’s very easy. 400 is a lot of people, like, 200 meters. Add another 20,000 troops digitally. So you need that. Same with the horses.”
“There are many, actually. The best shot is the very high wide shot looking from the forest across the lake and you have the small figure of Napoleon and his officers all standing, waiting there. That’s pretty impressive. You get the scale of the lake. The lake is an airfield just outside of London. The forest is somewhere else near Gatwick Airport.”
Am I right in thinking that’s the same location as the opening of Gladiator?
“It is indeed. It’s where Marcus Aurelius sat on his horse. We found a forest for Gladiator and the guy said you can do what you want. You can burn it and rip it down. He says, “Because these trees haven’t grown the way we want them, the soil is too sandy, so do what you want.” And so we went in and we did the battle scene. It suddenly became the most valuable location near London. So it is been used again, and again, and again.”
Any other film…. The Searchers (1956)
“The Searchers. John Wayne walking through the door in silhouette out onto the desert. I think the film is still the best Western ever made. The thing that The Searchers got right was the space and time. The time it takes to ride the landscape. The time it takes to go somewhere. Where he says, “We’re going off.” And he says, “I’ll see you in a year,” and you are all on horseback. I mean, it’s such a different universe. It’s almost like science fiction.”
Simon Cardy also thinks the opening shot of Blade Runner is a stunner. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.